Messages that spread and stick

Few days back, I was skimming through a book I found at work (Lencioni’s The Advantage), and I found a very appropriate metaphor for how communication works in the workplace. According to the author, it’s like in the old sketch where the wife is mad at her husband since he never says that he loves her.

“I told you once when we got married”, he retorts. “I’ll let you know if things change!”.

Very often, this is how people communicate in a professional setting. There is a meeting in which something is announced and it is expected for everyone to be on the same page and working toward the same goal. An email is sent to inform of a major change, and employees are supposed to know of the change, of what it implies for their work, of what repercussions it will have on their department, and so on. In more informal settings, it is not unusual to hear of a manager informing a team member in the office kitchen that the project the team was working on has been postponed, and then imagine that they would know exactly how to react to that and what to focus their attention on next.

Interpersonal communication is complex and fragile. Even more so when multiple people are involved. If we have a message that touches many and needs to spread and stick, we should follow few generic rules.

First of all, be ready to repeat. Nobody likes to be repetitive, and yet that is the best way to have a message stick. Neither does anybody like to be boring, and that is why we should avoid a “copy-pasting” effect and find different ways to deliver the core message we want to share. The core message – it could be summarised with “what” and “why” – needs to be very clear to the messenger. It might sound trivial, yet think about the difficulties many experienced people have in elaborating on the reasoning behind their decisions.

Then, be ready to experiment, with different channels and different formats. People have variegated ways to absorb information. Some like to read, some prefer a face-to-face interaction, some like meetings, some informal conversations, some need a visual representation of what is being discussed. Be bold, do not stick to what is usually done in the organisation. It’s worth it if you believe your message is really important. And try to put some video in the mix, particularly if you want to reach wide.

Finally, be ready to ask. Any type of communication is usually accompanied by the assumption that we have been understood and action will follow. That is almost never true. Ask if people have got it, if they are clear on the different implications of your message, touch base with them after one, three, six months and see if they still remember the “what” and the “why”. And if you have a doubt, go back to repeat and experiment until you are more than sure.

I know it sounds like a lot of job, yet we all need to embrace our role as Chief Reminding Officer when we have something we deeply care about to share within our organisation. If we do not do that, we risk to be rowing the boat by ourselves, and that is much tougher in the long term.

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